How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

The Parable of the Audience

by A. Ferguson

The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

*   *   *

A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.

Every now and again I  hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!

Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.

Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.

Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:

Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.

So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?

I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.

It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).

By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!